The Craft of Short Fiction: CHARACTER

The Craft of Short Fiction: CHARACTER
CHARACTER simply refers to the people in a work of fiction, but beyond this
simple definition, there are more complex ways of thinking about and
responding to the characters in a fictional work. Many of you said that a good
short story has characters you can “identify with” and “relate to,” and I agree
with you that these are the first things we probably notice. But some of the best,
most memorable characters that we encounter in reading literature are the ones
that we least relate to or identify with, the ones who seem completely different
than us, who baffle and bewilder us. We walk away from these characters
surprised, amazed, shocked, or incredulous. They are interesting and
sometimes memorable to us precisely because we don’t exactly identify with
them or relate to them. It’s probably a good idea to remember that these strange
or uncanny characters can be just as fascinating and provocative as the ones we
fully understand and relate to.
Readers want characters that engage them, and whether that means people they
can recognize or people they are meeting for the first time, the important thing is
that the characters in a story make you feel something. Making you care about
their characters is one of the biggest responsibilities a writer has, because if the
characters flop, the story is probably going to be disappointing. Characters are
weak when readers don’t care about them at all. If as a careful, sensitive reader
you become apathetic or bored with a character, that may signal an important
In your thinking about character, try to create space for the ones that you can’t
relate to or identify with. Try instead to observe character as closely as you can;
notice the motivations, the behaviors, the traits that make this person tick, that
make this person individual. One of the distinguishing features of the modern
short story (as opposed to older forms of narrative like the legend or the tale) is
that its characters are psychologically complex individuals rather than “types.”
A really excellent short story will not rely on stereotype or formula to develop a
main character, although minor characters may sometimes strike you as types
because they are not as fully developed as the main character.
Here’s a brief vocabulary for discussing “character”:
Protagonist/Antagonist. The protagonist is the leading character and
the antagonist is an opposing force (sometimes a character, but not
always; “poverty,” for example, may be an antagonist, or “old age”). The
protagonist is often the most psychologically complex of any of the
characters in the story. One famous exception (although this is epic
poetry, not short fiction): Satan is the most complex character in Paradise
Round/Flat character. A round character has a fully developed, multidimensional, multi-faceted personality. Usually the protagonist, the main
character is the round character in the story. A flat character, by contrast,
is one-dimensional in that you may only get to see one side of his or her
Dynamic/Static character. A dynamic character is someone who grows
and changes during the course of the story. Usually the main character is
a dynamic character (but not always); the point of the story might be to
reveal this change. A static character, by contrast, is someone who does
not measurably change much during the course of the story. It’s rare for a
main character to be static, but one example that comes to mind is
Phoenix Jackson in “A Worn Path” by Eudora Welty. Phoenix is a 95
year-old grandmother caring for her grandson on her own. She must
make an arduous trip over a mountain ridge into town to get him
medicine. Her journey is an obstacle course of barriers—everything from
senility, to exhaustion, to blindness, to racism—but NOTHING can stop
her. She is determined to complete the trip. That nothing can puncture
her courage or change her heart is a triumph of the will that readers can
admire. She is a static character, but not a stagnant one.
Think about the characters in the stories you’ve read so far. Who are the
protagonists and what are the antagonistic forces they are up against? What are
the roles of the minor characters in the story? Do they shed light on the main
character in some way? How deep can you take your observations of
personality and behavior and motivation? In the end, does the character change
in any significant way? If the character doesn’t change, does that stasis seem to
you to be a triumph or a tragedy?